In Honor of Indigenous Peoples' Day 2020
By Shereá Denise
Birthright: a right, privilege, or possession to which a person is entitled by birth.
Perpetuating the Divide
I think I was in middle school when various People of Color began having random conversations with me about my hair. The questions that they asked were intended to be compliments (I think), but they never truly felt that way. When asked directly about my heritage, I always denied being biracial or multiracial because - as far as I knew - I wasn’t.
Of course I had heard the whispers among family members about possible American Indian heritage, but the conversation was almost always followed by a conversation about that not being possible due to our brown complexion. For years I never explored my Indigenous heritage because I had been taught that - though my last name is associated with the state-recognized tribe in my county - my family was “from a different set.” For some reason, the “from a different set” explanation always read as “lower class” to me.
Stepping Into the Circle
In college I started doing a little research, but many people in my family were not interested in having some of the conversations that I so desperately wanted to have. While in graduate school I happened to meet someone who had served as Legal Counsel for the tribe in my county. Based on the information he had, he felt that I should consider applying for tribal citizenship. I accepted what he said, but did not act on it because I still had more questions about my heritage than answers.
In the years following graduation, I began meeting people who were citizens of the local Tribe, people who encouraged me to research my family history a little bit more. During this time I was also around more of my paternal relatives, who unintentionally dropped breadcrumbs that led me to the information that I needed to submit my application for citizenship.
The people that I met who had identified as Native for all or most of their lives talked openly to me about some of the issues I would encounter on my quest for citizenship. Most of them heard my last name and assumed there was no question that my lineage led back to the Tribe, but they had a few unrecognized advantages that I did not.
First, I grew up in a different part of the county and I did not know more than a handful of tribal citizens. They knew everybody.
Secondly, I did not know the tribal language nor had many of the Tribe’s traditions been passed down or explained to me. They knew full sentences in our language and had incorporated various customs into their daily lives.
I was also apprehensive because I had not forgotten those conversations from my childhood, specifically the ones about complexion. So many people - including Indigenous people - expect “Indians” to look a certain way. Even though we know that the real Pocahontas looked nothing like the Disney character, people (including our own) still hold us to that Europeanized standard of Indian-ness. If your hair is not silky and flowing or if your skin is a touch too brown, your culture is immediately called into question. While I always knew that being “color stroke” was a prevalent issue in the Black Community, I was shocked to see how openly it existed among some Indigenous people.
Another thing? I was not ready to surrender my Blackness. I found myself participating in conversations where my newly-found Indigenous relatives asked and/or encouraged me to update my state identification and other paperwork to only indicate American Indian. My refusal to do so was met with shock. I distinctly remember sitting at a Pow Wow saying to someone: “I have always been Black and I recognize that - regardless of what my paperwork says - when people see me, they will consider me Black.” In my opinion, if receipt of a tribal card made me begin denying the rest of my heritage, I was repeating the same cycle as the people who told me I was from a different set. I was separating myself and erasing a whole part of my being as if I could not be all parts of all of the races that incorporate my heritage.
Fighting For Recognition
My Tribe was officially recognized by the state of North Carolina in 2001. The fight for recognition was a long one that required at least one lawsuit. Imagine having to sue someone to be recognized as who and what you are… but also consider having to prove to these recognized people that you, too, are their family.
In 2015 I submitted my tribal citizenship application, but it took until 2016 for it to be approved. I will be the first to admit that - in retrospect - my application was symbolic of some things that were much deeper than I had originally considered. Specifically, I was longing for acceptance, not just of my application, but of me as a person. I can admit that I gave the process too much credence. Had my application been denied, it would not have changed who I knew myself to be.
The citizenship process made me question myself in a new way. I had to really consider my motives for wanting a tribal card. I also had to decide just how far I was going to take the fight to get one. At times this process was less about my own citizenship and more about making things right for my ancestors. I had seen my cousins denied parts of our heritage and spoken down to/about. Throughout the process I just kept thinking to myself that - now that I had documentation that proved we were not different sets - I was no longer going to allow my family to be treated as such, as some forgotten or banished line of Burnett’s who were less than the Burnette’s in Alamance County.
A process that should have taken weeks took months. While there were moments when I felt like rescinding my application, I ultimately decided that my reasons for going through the process were greater than my insecurities about my own heritage and my frustrations with said process. The tribal card was symbolic of so many things. I did not need a tribal card, but I wanted one because it solidified who I was and - in my opinion - gave me the space to fight for my own recognition as an Indigenous person.
Longing for Acceptance
In 2016 I received my tribal card in the mail. The confirmation, joy, and belonging that I felt initially was short lived. In the years to follow, I would find myself rebuffed and ignored at times by my tribal leadership. I would also hear other tribal citizens who are very involved in the greater Indigenous Community explain their reasons for no longer being involved locally. These conversations gave me historical context for a lot issues that I was seeing currently, but they also helped me to realize that - while part of the citizenship process may have been about me longing for acceptance - I was no longer interested in being validated by people - whether they were Indigenous or not.
Opening the Door
A few great things have emerged from the last four years as it pertains to my tribal citizenship though. After I received my tribal card, two of my cousins applied and received theirs as well. Many of my cousins who used to whisper about our heritage are outright asking me questions now and have expressed interest in going to tribal events, including the annual Pow Wow. Further, my community work has allowed me to extend opportunities to the Tribe to have a seat at the table to discuss issues like community health and child welfare.
In a recent interview, Dr. Angela Davis said, “I am just so happy that I have lived long enough to witness this moment… And I think that I see myself as witnessing this moment for all of those who lost their lives in the struggle over the decades.” Though my process to obtain a tribal card pales in comparison to the work that Angela Davis has done for Black liberation, I feel like my work to obtain citizenship offered some form of solace to my extended family and to my ancestors. Solace that could not have been achieved any other way.
Though I did not choose my ancestors, I believe that they chose me. My tribal citizenship was not just my birthright. It was theirs as well.